When scheduling the 2021 Illinois State University volleyball season, the Redbirds looked specifically to schedule multiple tough nonconference opponents to prepare for their strong challengers in the Missouri Valley Conference season.
When they hosted University of Cincinnati on Friday night, that’s exactly what they got; a tough battle against a 2019 NCAA tournament team. Despite the 3-1 loss, the Redbirds fought hard and showed positives in all four sets they played against the Bearcats, which just creates areas for improvement in the eyes of head coach Leah Johnson.
“We’re going to look at our service game, to see how we can get more points there. We’re going to look at how to get our middles involved more.” Johnson said, “Teams don’t back down. To some degree, we have a target on our back too. That is exactly what we needed. In the long run, it’s experience, and we have to learn from it.”
Both teams came out of the gate with their fair share of errors in set one, as neither team held a lead larger than three for the entire set until the Redbirds last point to win 25-21.
Following a lost Redbird challenge when it was 19-18, sophomore Sarah Kushner ended a long rally with a big kill that seemed to bring the energy the Redbirds needed to finish out the set and build a four-point lead.
“I was put in a great situation by Stef [Jankiewicz] where I could score.” Kushner said, “We play with a lot of passion and excitement, and we capitalized on that and finished out the set.”
The majority of set two followed the same script, with both teams primarily trading one and two-point leads. Despite ISU scoring three late points in a row when the Bearcats had match point, Cincinnati took the set 25-22. Cincinnati rode that wave and came out strong in set three, and despite a run of seven straight Redbird points to take an ISU 15-11 lead. The Bearcats again came out on top after a 7-1 run to win the set 26-24.
Cincinnati’s last three points of the set came in the form of kills by sophomore Madison Waters, who finished the day tied for a match-high 19 kills (Her teammate Maria Tobergte also had 19).
“I thought she was the difference,” Johnson said about Waters. “She took advantage of kind of a sloppy blocking night for us. She was very good, and she was very composed the whole game. She was their anchor.”
The Redbirds did still show some fight in set four, but ultimately couldn’t stop Cincinnati from going on a five-point run about midway through and lost the last set, 25-16, the largest deficit of the day for either team.
“I can’t really explain set four,” coach Johnson said. “They had a rhythm. It wasn’t that we were passing poorly or playing poorly, they just had a rhythm. They were winning the long rally.”
Kaylee Martin’s 15 kills and Jankiewicz’s 34 assists led the Redbirds. Jankiewicz now has had at least 25+ assists in all four games this season, with 134 through all 15 sets.
The Redbirds now sit at 2-2. They look to bounce back tomorrow at 1 p.m., calling into action the “beat the day before” adjustment strategy they used to split the series against Marquette University last weekend.
“They made great adjustments on us. We’ll try and do the same thing,” Kushner said. “I think we’re all ready for tomorrow. I know I’m ready to play.”